Tag Archives: Robin Symes

The Getty’s Looted Amber: A Window into the Museum’s Deepening Dilemma

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In Saturday’s Los Angeles Times, I have a story about Getty Museum’s efforts to find the true origins of its massive antiquities collection.

Here’s how the story starts:

In the wake of a scandal over its acquisition of looted antiquities, the J. Paul Getty Museum is trying to verify the ownership histories of 45,000 antiquities and publish the results in the museum’s online collections database.

The study, part of the museum’s efforts to be more transparent about the origins of ancient art in its collection, began last summer, said Getty spokesman Ron Hartwig.

“In this effort, and in all our work, when we identify objects that warrant further discussion and research, we conduct the necessary research to determine whether an item should be returned,” Hartwig said in a statement to The Times.

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The review is likely to reveal that problems in the Getty’s collection go far deeper than the nearly 50 looted objects returned since 2007according to Getty records and interviews with antiquity dealers and former museum officials.

Hundreds of objects still in the collection were acquired with false ownership histories aimed at disguising their origins in the illicit antiquities trade, records and interviews show.

The depth of its problem was underscored in November, when the Getty published a catalog of 56 carved ambers, objects that the ancient Greeks and Etruscans used in amulets for the magical properties they were believed to possess.

At first look, “Ancient Carved Ambers in the J. Paul Getty Museum” represents the museum at its finest — decades of scholarship published online in an illustrated catalog that engages the public in a rarely studied artifact of the ancient world.

But records — including internal Getty files — show that the ambers were almost certainly looted from tombs in northern Italy.

medici mugThe relics passed through the smuggling network of Giacomo Medici, who has been convicted in Italy of trafficking in illegally excavated artifacts. Once in the United States, they were donated to the Getty as part of a tax fraud scheme that nearly brought the institution to its knees in the 1980s.

The catalog is silent on this history, which a Getty spokesman says the museum was not aware of at the time, but it does acknowledge the consequences. Because nothing is known of the context in which the ambers were found, little can be definitively concluded about their meaning to their ancient owners.

“Were they purchases, part of a dowry, heirlooms, or other kinds of gifts?” writes Faya Causey, author of the catalog. “Unfortunately, we can only speculate as to whether the ambers were actually possessions of the people with whom they were buried, how the objects were acquired, and in which cultic or other activity they played a part.”

The ambers capture the dilemma that the Getty faces today. Having largely abandoned the purchase of ancient art, it is using its unparalleled resources to restore meaning to objects whose history it had a hand in destroying.

You can read the full LA Times story here.

The Getty’s Study Collection

This is not the first time questions have been raised about the Getty’s study collection, the tens of thousands of artifacts in the museum’s collection deemed not worthy of display but held in storage for scholarly study.

In the 1990s, hundreds of pottery sherds and votive fragments in the collection were linked to a looted archaeological site in Francavilla Maritima. Under Marion True’s leadership, the Getty conducted an exhaustive scholarly study of the material, then returned it to Italy. 

Last year, the Getty quietly returned 150 marble fragments in the collection (88.AA.140 – 88.AA.144) to Italy after evidence emerged that they joined objects found in the same looted tombs of Ascoli Satriano that produced  the Getty’s Griffins and statue of Apollo, which were returned to Italy in 2007. The objects and fragments were acquired in the 1980s from London dealer Robin Symes.

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Getty spokesman Ron Hartwig described the voluntary returns as the result of cooperative research with Italian archaeologists:

In his letter to Director General Luigi Malnati last January, Jim Cuno said, “The Getty acquired these objects as a gift in 1988, in the hope that they would be preserved and studied and eventually reconnected with other fragments of the same objects.  Happily, careful scholarship has led to that result.  Working with colleagues in Italy, Getty curators have determined that the fragments in our possession are very likely to match with vessels from Ascoli Satriano.  It is our hope that the fragments can be examined to ascertain their pertinence, and rejoined to these vessels.” Dr. Malnati invited [Getty antiquities curator] Claire Lyons to join a committee formed as a research collaboration to examine the pieces.

01293001But the Getty’s problems are not confined to the study collection, as was demonstrated last week when the Getty announced it would return a terracotta head of Hades to Sicily. It will be reunited with the statue’s body, which was found at the archaeological site of Morgantina — the same source of the Getty’s looted statue of Aphrodite, which was returned in 2010.

These returns are a reminder of the Getty’s crooked collecting practices, but they also offer some reason for hope. Each return has contributed to important new insights about archaeological sites that were despoiled by looters. The process of joint investigation and return has helped re-create some of the lost context — something Lord Colin Renfrew once described as “Post-disjunctive forensic re-contextualisation.”

Expect to see more if it in the year ahead. As noted in Saturday’s story, a large part of the Getty’s study collection was acquired in bulk donations in the 1970s and 1980s via the looting and tax fraud scheme we describe in Chapter 2 of Chasing Aprhodite. Records show that much of it passed through the smuggling networks of Medici, Hecht, Symes and Becchina, suggesting it will likely end up back in Italy sooner or later.  

The ambers are the latest tip to surface of a very large iceberg. As David Gill noted in November, “the scale of the problem for the Getty is massive.”

Dallas Museum of Art Returns Orpheus Mosaic, Five Other Looted Treasures in Announcing New Art Loans Initiative

Orpheus Mosaic

The Dallas Museum of Art has agreed to return six looted antiquities from its collection and announced a broad new initiative to exchange expertise and artwork with cultural institutions around the world.

“The problems of illegal excavation and the illicit import of cultural property require the consideration of new models of cooperation among institutions,” the museum said in a release announcing the initiative, dubbed the Dallas Museum of Art Exchange Program, or DMX.

The effort was announced Monday while signing an agreement with Turkey, the museum’s first partner, for the return of the Orpheus Mosaic, a Roman mosaic floor looted near Edessa (today’s Sanliurfa) and acquired at a Christies auction by the DMA in 1999.

Microsoft Word - Orpheus mosaic in situ.docxIn explaining the return, the museum cited compelling new evidence presented by Turkish investigators about the mosaic’s illicit origins: “Two newly recovered in situ photos of the mosaic showing it being removed by the smugglers. The photographs also show the full work with its decorative borders intact, prior to it being removed from the ground. The photographs were printed by a local photo shop in Sanliurfa and are currently evidence in a criminal investigation being carried out by the Sanliurfa Head Prosecutor in order to identify everyone involved in the crime.” The image shows the mosaic with a border that was likely removed by looters, the museum notes, adding, ” The canister visible in the lower right contains a Turkish brand of glue, which looters–not archaeologists–would have used to make repairs.”

Notably, the Dallas museum initiated the return of the mosaic instead of waiting for it to be identified by Turkish authorities, who have been on a campaign to repatriate looted antiquities. Soon after Maxwell Anderson started as director in January, he asked the museum’s antiquities curators to identify objects with troubling ownership histories. The mosaic was found to be nearly identical to several published on a website of Turkey of looted objects. Anderson told the Dallas Morning News:

the last thing he wanted was “to be the recipient of a claim by Turkey and be unprepared, seeing all of that evidence. So, I wrote to the embassy, saying if you have any information about this mosaic, please let us know. I didn’t have any specific information, but it seemed circumstantially that it was very likely that it was removed from that site.” Turkish officials came forward with the photograph of the mosaic, “which is all you need to know,” Anderson said.

In addition to the Orpheus mosaic, the Dallas museum agreed to return five antiquities to Italy in response to law enforcement requests. All five  Two of those objects were first questioned by us in a Jan. 11 email to the museum inquiring about links between the DMA and the illicit trade, including antiquities dealer Edoardo Almagia. After our inquiry, the DMA contacted Italy and has now agreed to return them.

UPDATE: In February, we requested provenance information for 15 of the DMA’s recent acquisitions, including the five pieces returned this week, that we selected at random. They helpfully provided the list we posted here. We asked yesterday on Twitter whether other objects on that list might also be returned — several come from dealers who have also been implicated in the illicit trade. A museum spokeswoman now tells us: “Italian and Greek authorities have reviewed  our collections records, including the works you refer to in your recent post, and have advanced no other claims.” Of course, some of the material on the list, such as the Cycladic figurine, likely came from other countries.

The objects going back to Italy — and the DMA’s explanation for their return — offer a helpful who’s who of the illicit antiquities trade.

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Two Etruscan shields with the head of Acheloos (Etruscan 6th Century BC)

Volute Krater (Pulian, 4th Century BC). 

As we noted in February, both were purchased from  antiquities dealer Edoardo Almagià in 1998.  The museum describes Almagià as “a former New York antiquities dealer…currently named in a criminal case for conspiracy to commit the illegal export and smuggling of cultural property pending before the Public Prosecutor of Rome. Almagià has been under investigation since at least 2006, when U.S. Customs officials raided his New York apartment, confiscating photographs, documents, and archaeological material. He was also the subject of a New York Times story in 2010 that revealed he and Michael Padgett, former antiquities curator at the Princeton University Art Museum, were the focus of an investigation of the illegal export and laundering of Italian archaeological objects. The Italian government named Almagià in the criminal case for having ‘sold, donated, or lent’ nearly two dozen works looted from Italian sites to the Princeton Museum. Roughly twenty other objects are listed in the case as having been obtained illegally by Almagià and sold to other American institutions in the 1980s and 1990s, including this pair of shields.” UPDATE: The DMA incorrectly referred to Padgett as the former antiquities curator at Princeton. The Princeton Museum confirms he remains on staff there, and the DMA has corrected is post.

dma_507363As evidence that the statue and krater were looted, the museum cited “photographs provided that were seized by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials” and “archival evidence seized by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, including records of sales and correspondence currently serving as evidence in the criminal investigation and court case.”

Dallas now joins the Met and Princeton in returning objects linked to the dealer. (We’ve written about those returns here and here.) Will the other museums we’ve identified with Almagia material — including the Getty, the Boston MFA, San Antonio Museum of Art, Indiana University — now be motivated to do the same?

dma_507366A Red Figure krater (Apulia, 4th Century BC) acquired by DMA at Sotheby’s in 1996.

A Calxy Krater (Campagnia, 4th Century BC) acquired from the vases form Ward and Co. around 2005, said to be from a “Swiss private collection.” 

Both vases have been linked to Gianfranco Becchina, who the museum describes as “a Sicilian antiquities dealer who has been convicted in Italy of dealing in stolen antiquities. Becchina started dealing in antiquities from his premises in Basel, Switzerland, in the 1970s and is said to have sold to several major museums, sometimes through Sotheby’s and Christie’s auction houses in London. In May 2002, the Carabinieri, in collaboration with the Swiss police, raided his storage facilities in Basel, recovering thousands of objects in various stages of restorations, photographs of artifacts, and other documents.”

dma_507370“The J. Paul Getty Museum and the Toledo Museum of Art have both returned material to Italy that was acquired from Becchina and subsequently shown to have been illegally exported.”

“In April 2012 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement seized two works from Christie’s New York auction house that were associated with the investigation of Becchina. According to the Carabinieri, Gianfranco Becchina has been identified as one of the most prolific known traffickers of Italian cultural heritage, and all property that has been shown to have been illicitly trafficked by Becchina is subject to confiscation.”

You can find a list of our previous posts mentioning Becchina here.

dma_507364Etruscan head of an Antefix. Said to be from Henri Jacques of Geneva. Purchased from Robin Symes in about 1999.

A photograph linked this antefix to Giacomo Medici, who the museum describes as “a former antiquities dealer based in Rome, Italy, and Geneva, Switzerland, who was found guilty of receiving stolen goods, illegal export of goods, and conspiracy to traffic by the Italian government and sentenced to ten years in prison and a €10 million fine. In 1995 the Carabinieri, in concert with Swiss police, raided Medici’s storage space in Geneva, which contained thousands of objects, photographs (including many Polaroids), and documents relating to his business practices and connections. The Cleveland Museum of Art, J. Paul Getty Museum, and Metropolitan Museum of Art have all returned objects that were acquired via Giacomo Medici. Along with Gianfranco Becchina, he has been identified by the Carabinieri as one of the most prolific known traffickers of Italian cultural heritage.”

Robin Symes, the dealer form whom the DMA purchased the objects, has also been linked to the illicit trade, the museum notes. “Symes is also accused of playing a pivotal role in the illegal trade of looted antiquities. Several museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, have already returned several objects acquired through Symes. He is known to have commercial relations with dealer Giacomo Medici, who was the ultimate source of the artifacts that would subsequently be sold through dealers or auction houses. Prior to the Medici conviction, Robin Symes had been involved in a civil court case, and in January 2005 he was sentenced to two years in prison for contempt of court for not fully disclosing his assets.”

You can find our other posts mentioning Symes here.

We’ll have more on the significance of the returns and the DMA’s new loans initiative in a future post.

New Wave of Returns: Hundreds of Looted Antiquities Recovered from the Met, Princeton and Others

On Jan 20, the Italian art squad announced the return of more than 200 antiquities from US museums, companies, collectors and dealers — all the product of illegal excavation or theft.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art returned forty pieces belonging to a deceased private collector who has been identified as the museum’s former antiquities curator Dietrich von Bothmer. Von Bothmer was known to have a large private collection of vase fragments and was fond of reuniting these fragments with vases in known collections. Fabio Isman reports that several of the returned fragments match vases already returned by American museums, including the Getty’s Onesimos kylix, which was potted by the famous Euphronios.

Question: What of the rest of the von Bothmer collection and his considerable personal archive, which no doubt contains a fascinating history of the illicit antiquities trade over the past 50 years? Is it, as this return suggests, in the possession of the Met, and will its contents be made public?

Princeton University Art Museum returned 170 objects and fragments, including: an askos-shaped talus; two statues of women, including one playing a tambourine and the other a lyre; a white pithos with red figures representing animals;  and 166 fragments from vases and architectural elements. The returns appear to be related to the investigation of Edoardo Almagià, the Princeton alum and antiquities dealer who, along with Princeton antiquities curator Michael Padgett, are targets of an investigation by Italian authorities.

The release states [via Google translation] that the objects “were identified in previous surveys conducted by the [Carabinieri] of the possessions of an Italian-American citizen, resident of New York, who has been the subject of the seizure of numerous archaeological finds, in New York and Rome, and copious documentation with photographic material pertaining to sales and loans made ​​by him.” These seized documents have allowed investigators to trace looted antiquities to prestigious American museums like the Met and Princeton, the release says, adding that the Carabinieri “have thus established, irrefutably, the origin of the objects from illicit excavations made ​​in Italy.” Works from Almagia have also been traced to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Cleveland Museum of Art; the Dallas Museum of Art; the San Antonio Museum of Art; the Toledo Museum of Art; the Tampa Museum of Art; the Indiana University Art Museum, The New York Times has reported.

Question: It appears we can now add the Almagia Archive to the trove of documents, photographs and objects that Italian investigators have seized from antiquities dealers Robin Symes, Robert Hecht, Gianfranco Becchina and Giacomo Medici. Given that only Medici has been convicted in Italian court, will these archives, which provide an unprecedented record of the illicit trade, ever be released publicly by Italian authorities?

Princeton and the Met have not yet acknowledged the returns. We’ll post details when they do. In response to a previous request for information, Princeton Museum spokeswoman Cass Cliatt took pains to distance the museum from the Padgett/Almagia case: “The[re] were not and have not ever been any allegations against the University related to the current investigation, and the Italian authorities at no point contacted the University about the current investigation. Great care should be taken about implying a connection.” It is not clear how a criminal investigation into the museum’s curator and a major donor (and alum) have nothing to do with the museum, and these returns only raise further questions. We’ve asked Cliatt for more information and will post it here when it comes.

Other returns announced in the release:

Humana, a Fortune 100 health insurance provider, returned two statues that had graced the lobby of its Louisville headquarters. The first, a second century sculpture depicting the goddess Fortuna, was stolen in October 1986 from an opera house in Rome. The second, a first century marble statue, was illegally excavated in Lazio, Italy and has been linked to the convicted antiquities trafficker Giacomo Medici. The release says Humana acquired the statues in 1984 from a New York Gallery and cooperated fully with Italian investigators.

A New York antiquities dealer has returned a bronze statue known as the Venus of St. John Perareto, which was stolen from a museum in Rimini in 1962. UPDATE: Jerome Eisenberg of Royal-Athena Gallery in New York confirms that he is the dealer. In an email, he said he bought the small Venus from an unnamed dealer in Freiburg, Germany in 1982 and was offering it for $22,500.

An ancient parchment stolen from Bari was identified and returned with the help of FBI officials in Chicago. And bronze grave goods from the first century were returned “a genuine gesture of respect for the Italian people” by contemporary artist Edward Giobbi, who had inherited them from his father.

Hat-Tip: David Gill at Looting Matters first brought the returns to our attention.

ALSO: Fabio Isman has a story on the returns in Il Messagero.

Loot at the Seattle Art Museum?

While in Seattle last month for a talk at Elliot Bay Bookstore, I stumbled across an interesting piece in the Seattle Art Museum’s permanent collection of ancient art: a marble Roman portrait head of the Emperor Claudius.

Why interesting? Here’s the provenance listed for the object: “Robin Symes Ltd.; Seattle Art Museum, Norman and Amelia Davis Collection.” That’s the same Robin Symes who brokered the sale to the Getty of the looted Griffins, Apollo and Lekanis, which the museum returned to Italy in 2007. He was also the dealer who sold the Getty its famous looted statue of Aphrodite, which was returned to Italy last year. (Symes was never indicted by Italian authorities, but his name comes up repeatedly as a key player in their investigation of the looted antiquities trade.)

I asked the Seattle Art Museum for details about the object. What was known about its ownership history? Was the museum concerned about possessing an object from a dealer known to traffic in looted art?

According to museum spokeswoman Cara Egan, the Claudius was acquired in 1993 from Symes. It had not been previously published, and had no known ownership history. (The Norman Davis endowment — named for a prominent Seattle collector of ancient coins — provided the funds for the purchase.)

“We proactively contacted the Italian authorities several times beginning in 2006 to alert them about the Claudius portrait and to research the object’s provenance,” said Egan. “We have not received a response back from them.”

The museum does not have any other objects in its collection known to have come through Symes or the other prominent dealers implicated in the Italian case, Egan said. The SAM continues to actively research the provenance of the piece and welcomes new information.

Egan did not provide any details about that research. We suggest the SAM consider contacting Greek authorities, who raided Symes’ estate on the island on Schinoussa. Among the items seized during the raid were photos of dozens of likely looted objects sold by Symes.

 

Dallas Morning News: “A Page-Turner”

In a review published on Sunday, the Dallas Morning News calls Chasing Aphrodite “a fascinating look at the long-standing ‘institutional hypocrisy’ of the acquisition policy of major American Museums.”

“Felch and Frammolino were relentless in their uncovering of the Getty’s various other lapses:  they peer into the infighting and ‘sexually charged Getty culture,’ ferreting out details in the museum’s governance, as well as the extravagant personal use of the Getty’s funds by its most flamboyant director, Barry Munitz, a former chancellor of the California State University system. All of which makes for a page-turner.”

Interesting side-note: the reviewer Kathryn Lang was a docent at the Kimbell Art Museum in Ft. Worth, which has an impressive collection of ancient art. Lang does not mention the fact, but several suspect dealers in the book helped the Kimbell form its collection. Among the ancient objects at the museum are a Greek vase purchased from Robin Symes (the dealer who sold the Getty its looted statue of Aphrodite) and several objects from Elie Borowski, whose name appears prominently in a chart of the illicit antiquities trade seized by Italian police. (See Chasing Aphrodite, p. 151)